They believed they had a rookie who worked through injuries that kept him out of their offseason program a year ago, someone who played in 15 games — starting nine — at inside linebacker and finished fourth on the team in tackles.
Then the Broncos’ new coaching staff took another look and believed they could see what Browning could become: an impact pass-rusher, the kind who can disrupt, harass and get to the quarterback.
“In this league, it’s about getting to the quarterback, first and foremost,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “You can never have too many rushers.
“We wanted to see what it looked like when he was down there.”
There is plenty of NFL road left to travel this season, but what the Broncos have seen so far is that Browning can take what he’s learned in the meeting room, from his more experienced teammates, from his coaches and apply it on the field. What the Broncos have seen is reason for optimism.
Browning consistently showed his progress in a joint practice with the Dallas Cowboys last week. And in the preseason game against the Cowboys, Browning finished with a sack, a pass knocked down, three tackles and consistently forced the issue in pass rush situations while playing 37 snaps.
It was a small glimpse into defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero’s assessment of Browning early on in training camp: “We really, really love what he’s doing right now.”
There is potential for Browning to flourish at what most personnel executives in the league consider a foundational position on defense.
But, in the short term, Browning has gone from a starter at one position to learning a new one, with all of the intricacies, tricks of the trade as well as the moves and countermoves to make it all work.
The Broncos’ plan is for Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory, who signed a $70 million deal with the team in free agency in March, to be the top options in the pass rush. The Broncos then selected outside linebacker Nik Bonitto in the second round of April’s draft — their first pick of the draft after the trade for quarterback Russell Wilson — and Bonitto has already shown he’s ready to carve out some snaps as well.
But Evero has said he wants options in the pass rush, and a lot of them. And Browning’s teammates see the potential in the 23-year-old to be one of those options.
“It’s kind of crazy when you look at what he’s doing,” Chubb said. “You just talk about the natural things he does, the skills. He’ll just dip his shoulder, flash a move, and to him it just feels like no big thing, but when we talk about it, watch it on film, you see it’s crazy. He already can do what a lot of people can’t, so now it’s just adding all of the things to it, like Von [Miller] showed me.”
Miller always talked about “passing it on” to younger players the way Elvis Dumervil and DeMarcus Ware had passed those things on to Miller, and now Chubb said he’s tried to take a page from Miller’s handbook. He meets with Browning to break down game video as much as possible.
“I ask [Chubb] and [Randy Gregory] all the time,” Browning said. “Those small things, setting up a tackle, my approach in the rush, hands, all of those things. I feel like I make progress all the time, getting that hesitation out of your game.”
The history of the Broncos includes the discovery of impact rushers with unexpected routes into the lineup. Karl Mecklenberg was a 12th-round draft pick, Dumervil was a fourth-rounder and Shaquil Barrett was an undrafted rookie who forced his way onto a Super Bowl roster.
“Now that we’ve put him there, he has really owned it,” Hackett said of Browning. “He had a couple moves [Saturday against the Cowboys] … to actually see it on tape was spectacular, he had some great moves, some great countermoves, he was around the quarterback the whole day. You can see he is really owning that and becoming a lot better.”